On a recent cold morning, a sparse, grey industrial kitchen on Chicago’s West Side is awash with activity. Cooks pace between their stations while tamales simmer in three large silver bowls. The sound of their sizzling is punctuated only by the rustle of aluminum foil and sealing of Tupperware containers.
It is nine a.m. and Pepe Balanzar is watching over his team race through preparations for the day to come.
Balanzar, along with his business partner Manny Hernandez, are co-owners of one of Chicago’s oldest food trucks “The Tamale Spaceship.” Owners of other mobile food vehicles--as the city officially dubs them--call Balanzar and Hernandez pioneers in the small but growing industry.
“Many, many trucks started with us,” Balanzar says. [But] from that time we are [one of] only two trucks that survived.”
Six months after the city passed an ordinance placing new regulations on the industry granting truck owners the ability to prepare food inside their vehicles, only one of Chicago’s 126 mobile food dispensers have received a license to cook on board. In other major cities, food trucks have been cooking fresh food onboard for years, according to local officials.
Which is one reason why Tamale Spaceship’s co-owners Pepe Balanzar and Manny Hernandez are here, cooking in this industrial kitchen.
In the coming hours, today’s staff of four will make hundreds of tamales, pack them into one of the business’ two trucks, drive into downtown Chicago, and--they hope--sell every single one of their corn-wrapped dishes.
For two years, Balanzar and Hernandez have managed this same routine nearly every morning. The system they have developed is a model of efficiency, borne out of a number of successes and failures. But they said one lesson is more vital than any other.
“Find the parking, it’s like 50 percent of sales. Find the parking first,” said Balanzar. To that end, he said he wakes up early most mornings to park one of the “Tamale Spaceship”’s two food trucks downtown.
And like every other food truck in Chicago, Balanzar and Hernandez have to follow a very specific set of rules governing where they can park their vehicle. For years city code has stipulated that no food truck can park within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. (Last summer, this ordinance was partially amended to allow for parking between midnight and 2 am.)
Both Balanzar and Hernandez said they go to great lengths to adhere to what city attorneys and many in Chicago’s food truck industry refer to as the “200-feet rule.”
“We went in the middle of the night, just to make sure there’s no traffic or anything like that. And we took a string, a 200-feet of string, and measured from a restaurant to the spot that we were planning to park. Just to make sure we’re 200 feet away,” Hernandez said in an interview at Kitchen Chicago, the West Side industrial center where a number of local food trucks prepare their products.
Balanzar, in particular, says that extra legwork recently paid off during a run-in with police enforcing that 200-foot rule at a West Loop intersection.
“The police came and said, ‘You know what, it’s about inches.’ So they said it’s OK,” Balanzar said.
Disagreements, however, still exist between food trucks and restaurants. Take Glenn Keefer, the owner of Keefer’s Restaurant, for instance.
“It’s crazy the number of things that we have to pay for and I think, just to create a level playing field, it has to be one or the other. I mean if they (food truck owners) don’t want any restrictions, they need to pay their way,” Keefer said in a phone interview.
This past summer, lawmakers tweaked some of those restrictions governing food trucks--granting them new rights, but also introducing more regulations and heavier fines.
For example: Cooking is now allowed in food trucks if the business passes hefty inspections and purchases the necessary equipment. Meanwhile, lawmakers bumped up fines for violating the 200-foot rule to as much as $2,000 and required trucks to have an on-board GPS device turned on whenever it is in service.
City officials said in a statement after the new ordinance took effect last summer that the GPS device helps both the City and customers keep track of mobile food vehicles. But food truck owners say they already reach out to their followers over social media.
Hernandez says he paid $125 for the device, plus a $25 monthly fee--a sum which might not sound like a lot, but he said his business only makes around $19,000 per year.
“I just think it’s wrong. I don’t know any other industry where you have to have a GPS or whether the City or the police need to know where you are 24-7,” he said.
Changes to the city ordinance led three food truck owners to file a lawsuit against the City, alleging both the 200-feet rule and the on-board GPS device were “anticompetitive government restrictions.” The libertarian Institute for Justice is representing the owners in the suit.
On Wednesday, City attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the suit, saying the regulations don’t violate food truck owner’s constitutional rights. A hearing is set for early February in Cook County Circuit Court.
Balanzar and Hernandez—the owners of the “The Tamale Spaceship”—are not plaintiffs in the case but have many of the same complaints.
“I can say I don’t like it. It’s not like I don’t like it, I just don’t understand them. But in order for me to keep my business, I just have to follow those. Those are rules, and we follow the rules,” Hernandez said.
But the question remains -- are the new rules giving food trucks a boost, or just getting in the way?
Take for example the ordinance’s creation of new food truck stands. It carved out more than 20 dedicated parking spots (with more to come, officials say) for mobile food vendors to set up for two hours.
Balanzar says he had his “baddest day” when he used one of the officially sanctioned stands. Location is important but customers also crave consistency.
Other food truck owners said it often takes months--along with the coordinated efforts of multiple mobile food vendors--to make a parking spot profitable. Owner Teddy Vejar credits the Tamale Spaceship for finding successful spaces across the city.
“They’re the only ones who never come up with excuses like ‘Oh, I couldn’t find parking.’ They always make it happen. One way or another man, they don’t miss their spot ever,” said Vejar, who runs La Adelita food truck.
City officials say they have no control over how much the new stands are used.
“We hope that they take advantage of all the spaces that are provided but that’s up to industry. Our job is to make sure that we provide access,” said Gabe Klein, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation.
On this November morning, one of “The Tamale Spaceship”’s trucks is heading to a spot it is credited for popularizing: Madison and Wacker.
Posters, sombreros, and colorful lucha libre masks dot the walls inside the the truck. Balanzar proudly dons one of the masks while he works. “The Tamale Spaceship” estimates eighty percent of its business comes from return customers. And soon a string of office workers are lined up--many, already familiar with Balanzar.
Today “The Tamale Spaceship” sold 90 percent of its tamales--not bad for a day’s work, according to Balanzar, but still not ideal. Because even as they compete against Chicago’s eateries, someday Balanzar and Hernandez say they would like to someday open a restaurant of their own.
For now, Balanzar said he is just trying to keep the Tamale Spaceship afloat.
“It’s a lot of money to spend on this and that and [...] we are not really breaking the bank. I don’t think nobody is making a lot of money at this,” he said.
Map of city-sanctioned food truck stand locations
At these locations, a sign denotes that only food trucks can park there--however, the rules state that mobile food vendors can only stay at those spots for two hours. In interviews, Balanzar said he has plans to use these City-designated parking spaces; but, recently, his business “had [its] baddest day” when he parked at one of the spots. City officials, meanwhile, have said the stands are intended to help, not hinder, Chicago’s mobile food industry.
View Where the food trucks will be in a larger map
So where would the Tamale Spaceship rather park its truck?
Madison and Wacker: The Tamale Spaceship comes to this site near the Willis Tower nearly every week to serve customers during the lunch rush. Other food truck owners credit Balanzar and Hernandez for making the spot known for food trucks.
Clinton and Lake: Balanzar and Hernandez said they had a run-in with (but were not punished by) police officials trying to enforce the 200-foot rule. Local restaurants in the area, however, did not have a recollection of the incident.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated The Tamale Spaceship's historical significance. It is a well-established business, but not the oldest food truck in Chicago.